Foreign Affairs

Cold War International History Conference: Paper by Chen Jian

Session IV

Not Yet a Revolution:

Reviewing China's "New Cold War Documentation"

By Chen Jian Note 1

Southern Illinois University at Carbondale

Copyright 1998 by Chen Jian

One day late in 1989, when I was doing research for my dissertation on China's entry into the Korean War, I received a box of books from China. Opening the box, I was excited: among them were the first two volumes of the "internally circulated" Jianguo yilai Mao Zedong wengao (Mao Zedong's Manuscripts since the Formation of the People's Republic of China). These two volumes provided a wealth of previously inaccessible information, including the texts of more than one hundred telegraphic exchanges between Mao and Stalin, Kim Ilsung, and Chinese field commanders in Korea from late 1949 to the end of 1951. Note 2 This new source, together with many other similar sources that have appeared in China either by open publications or through "internal circulation" channels, Note 3 formed the documentary core on which I based "China's Road to the Korean War" as a dissertation in 1990 and then, after further research and much revision, turned it into a Columbia University Press book in 1994.

What I have experienced was part of a larger process characterized by writing (or rewriting) the Cold War history on the basis of new, "post Cold War" documentation. In China, where a Communist regime remains in domination after the end of the Cold War, this process occurred from the beginning with many restrictions. Indeed, Chinese archives (especially on the central level) have not really opened their doors to scholars. However, a large quantity of valuable (sometimes highly valuable) documents became available for the first time for Cold War study, especially through the channel of "selected documents" publications. As a result, the study of the Chinese experience during the Cold War has achieved much progress in the past decade, forming an important aspect of creating a "new Cold War history," to borrow a term from historian John Lewis Gaddis.

Put into the Chinese context, the primary driving force underlying this process was the introduction of the "reform and opening to the outside world" policy in the People's Republic of China (PRC) in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This policy has resulted in a more flexible political and academic environment compared with that of Mao's era, leading to the relaxation of the previously extremely rigid criteria in releasing party documents. In the meantime, the "reform and opening" process has provided scholars with new opportunities to study China's modern history, including its Cold War experience, in more creative and critical ways.

But what has happened in China in the past decade does not yet allow for "free inquiry" or unrestricted archival access. In actuality, although China has passed several archival laws and regulations since the early 1980s, setting up (among other things) a thirty-year period for declassifying archival records, it is still difficult--sometimes totally impossible-- for scholars, both Chinese and foreign, to gain direct accesses to archival materials. In most circumstances, scholars must rely upon "selected documents" to study China's Cold War history.

This essay offers a critical review of China's new Cold War documentation that has emerged in the past decade. It will first discuss the phenomenon of "selected documents" by introducing some of the major products in this category. It will then analyze what we have learned from the new documentation and what problems have remained or have been created with the availability of many previously inaccessible documents. It will further analyze how and why the regime in Beijing has remained resistant to free documentary inquiry. It will conclude by suggesting several strategies that may help to promote China's further documentary opening on a freer and less restrictive basis in the future.

The publication of "selected documents" was by no means a new phenomenon in China. For the purpose of mobilizing the party's rank and file, as well as justifying the historical legitimacy of the Chinese Communist revolution, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has long carried out a practice of compiling and publishing (openly as well as internally) documents produced by the party and its leaders. The most important and well-known example in this regard is the publication of the five-volume Mao Zedong xuanji (Selected Works of Mao Zedong) in the 1950s-1970s. In 1966-1967 alone, more than 100,000,000 sets of the first four volumes of xuanji had been printed and sold, making them, together with the famous "little red book" (Mao Zhuxi yulu or Quotations of Chairman Mao), the "Red Bible" during the years of the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution."

However, publications like Mao Zedong xuanji were not designed to provide scholars with reliable source materials to study China's recent past; rather, the volumes were aimed to guide China's "revolutionary mass movement" into the orbit set up by the CCP, especially by Mao himself. Thus, the criteria for selecting documents for these publications served the Party's immediate needs. Indeed, only those documents which served to promote the Party's current policy, or to enhance the Party's and its leaders' image of being "eternally correct," were made public. Consequently, the selection process was often accompanied by a substantive revision of the texts of historical documents. For example, it is well known among China scholars that the texts of many pieces in Mao Zedong xuanji have been substantially altered from the original versions.

Yet scholars of modern Chinese history, including historians of China's Cold War experience, have widely used PRC publications like Mao Zedong xuanji as their primary sources. Indeed, at a time when Western scholars had to travel to Hong Kong, Taipei, and Tokyo to collect materials on the Chinese Communist revolution, how could they not consult Mao Zedong xuanji? The openly published selected documents by the CCP and its leaders, together with official CCP and PRC statements, contemporaneous newspaper and journal literature, and, in some cases, Guomindang (the Nationalist Party) and Western intelligence reports, formed the documentary basis of Western studies on the Chinese Communist revolution before the early 1980s. Sometimes China scholars (both within China and in the West) had no other choice but to rely on obviously flawed documentary sources. As a result, in those years, the ability to make good "educated guesses" became a necessary quality for every Western scholar writing about China.


In a brief sketch, it is hard to describe how the situation has changed in the age of "reform and opening to the outside world." Insofar as the original documents of the CCP and its leaders are concerned, the archives storing them, especially Beijing's Central Archives, remain inaccessible to most scholars (both Chinese and Western). If one carefully examines the contents of the selected documents that have been compiled and published since the mid-1980s (especially the editions "for internal circulation only"), however, it is easy to find that the policy of "reform and opening to the outside world" has made its mark. Put simply, the "selected documents" compiled and published in the 1980s and 1990s are more substantial, and, so far as their texts are concerned, more reliable than previous collections. Despite all the flaws as well as the potential danger of being misled involved in using these materials, they are more valuable sources for historical study than the pre-1980s publications. To make this point clear, I will introduce and examine several major "selected documents" compiled and published during the past decade.


Jianguo yilai Mao Zedong wengao (Mao Zedong's Manuscripts since the Founding of the People's Republic of China, 13 volumes). Note 4 This series is by far the most important of all "selected documents" appearing in the past decade with its publication beginning in late 1987. As of late 1997, a total of thirteen volumes had been published, covering the period from October 1949 to 1976, the year of Mao's death. Although these volumes are marked "for internal circulation only," it is not difficult for scholars outside of China to gain access to them. For example, the Yenching Library and the library of John K. Fairbank Center at Harvard University, the East Asian Libraries at Columbia University, Stanford University, and Toronto University, and the Asian Section of Library of Congress, to name just a few, have collected various volumes from this set.

The documents published in this collection are of high historical value. They cover, among other things, such important events as Mao Zedong's visit to the Soviet Union in 1949-1950; China's participation in the Korean War in 1950-1953; Note 5 Mao's and the CCP leadership's management of relations with the Soviet Union in the mid- and late 1950s; Note 6 Mao's management of the Taiwan Crisis and the potential confrontation with the United States in 1958; Note 7 the CCP's attitudes toward the Sino-Soviet polemical debates in the early 1960s; and Mao's various activities during the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" in the late 1960s and early 1970s. On many occasions, the documents published in this collection confirm the inner-Party statements and instructions by Mao divulged during the "Cultural Revolution" years. Note 8 The majority of the documents in this collection had not been released in the past. Most of the documents are published in their entirety; some, however, are published only in part. The quality of the thirteen volumes is uneven. The first volume, which covers the period from October 1949 to December 1950, is one of the best. It offers, among other things, a quite detailed coverage of Mao's visit to the Soviet Union, as well as how the CCP leadership made the decision to enter the Korean War. Note 9 Volume Four, covering the 1953-1954 period, compared with other volumes, is extremely thin. As a whole, this collection provides scholars with much fresh information (compared with what we knew in the past) and, therefore, must be regarded as a basic reference for the study of Mao Zedong, the Chinese revolution, and the history of the PRC.

Zhonggong zhongyang wenjian xuanji (Selected Documents of the CCP Central Committee). Note 10 This documentary collection covers the period from 1921 to 1949 in two different editions: a fourteen volume internal edition published in the mid-1980s; and an eighteen volume open edition published in the early 1990s. Both editions contain many previously unavailable materials. The open edition contains almost fifteen percent more documents than the earlier internal one (however, a few "sensitive documents" that were included in the internal edition disappeared from the open edition). The quality of some of the documents is impressive. For example, a Central Committee's "Instructions on Diplomatic Affairs," dated 18 August 1944, clearly reveals the CCP leadership's perception of international affairs as well as its calculation on how the Party should best deal with the perceived situation. These documents provide scholars with valuable information for understanding important decisions by the CCP leadership in the pre-1949 period.

Mao Zedong junshi wenxuan (Selected Military Papers of Mao Zedong) Note 11 and Mao Zedong junshi wenji (A Collection of Mao Zedong's Military Papers, 6 volumes). Note 12Mao Zedong junshi wenxuan, published "for internal circulation only" in the early 1980s, contains many previously unknown inner-Party instructions and telegrams written by Mao, especially telegraphic communications between Mao and Chinese field commanders during the early stage of China's military intervention in Korea (October-December 1950). Its circulation was highly restricted at first; after the mid-1980s, however, it became available to scholars outside of China through several channels, especially after it had been reprinted by a publisher in Hong Kong. The six-volume Mao Zedong junshi wenji, published in December 1993 at the 100th anniversary of Mao's birthday, is extraordinarily uneven. The first five volumes, which cover the period from the late 1920s to 1949, include many documents released only for the first time. The sixth volume, which covers the period from 1949 to 1976, contains almost nothing new compared with the previously published Mao Zedong junshi wenji and Jianguo yilai Mao Zedong wengao. In reality, many documents concerning Mao's military decision-making during this post-revolution period published in the other two collections are not included in this volume. This is a great disappointment for scholars who are interested in Mao's activities during the PRC period, exposing the fundamental flaws of "selected documents."

Mao Zedong waijiao wenxuan (Selected Diplomatic Papers of Mao Zedong). Note 13 This collection focuses on Mao's diplomatic and strategic activities, emphasizing the post-1949 period. Some of the documents published in this volume are very valuable. For example, it has long been known to scholars that in the summer of 1958, a major dispute emerged between Beijing and Moscow in the wake of Moscow's proposal to establish a joint Chinese-Soviet submarine flotilla. However, it has been unclear to scholars how this dispute developed. The minutes of a talk between Mao Zedong and P. F. Yudin, the Soviet ambassador to China, on July 22, 1958, published in this volume, reveal the Chinese attitude, including Mao's underlying reasoning toward this issue. Note 14 But, as in other selected documentary publications, there are major documentary omissions. Note 15

Mao Zedong wenji (A Collection of Mao Zedong's Papers). Note 16 This collection publishes Mao's speeches, instructions, and telegrams not included in Mao Zedong xuanji. By 1997, five volumes had appeared, covering the period from 1925 to 1949. About one third of the documents were released for the first time. Some of the documents are revealing, such as those concerning the CCP leadership's attitudes toward the Xian Incident of 1936, and Mao's instruction on the CCP's policies and strategies in Shanghai after Communist forces occupied the city. Note 17 As a whole, however, this collection, which is an open publication, is less impressive in terms of new documentation released than Mao Zedong wengao.

Mao Zedong nianpu (A Chronicle of Mao Zedong, 3 volumes). Note 18 Published in December 1993, the 100th anniversary of Mao's 100th birthday, it offers a day-to-day account of Mao's activities up to 1949. The volume includes some previously unknown important documents, going beyond the coverage of other Mao collections. For example, it publishes for the first time Mao Zedong's telegram to the CCP's Nanjing Municipal Committee dated 10 May 1949, in which Mao established the principles for Huang Hua to meet with John Leighton Stuart, the American ambassador to China who remained after the Communist takeover of Nanjing. Note 19 This collection is an important source for studying both Mao and the CCP.

Zhou Enlai waijiao wenxuan (Selected Diplomatic Papers of Zhou Enlai). Note 20 This is a collection of meeting minutes, instructions, policy statements, and speeches related to Zhou Enlai's diplomatic activities. This collection includes some interesting documents. One is the Chinese minutes of Zhou Enlai's talk with K. M. Pannikar, Indian Ambassador to China, early in the morning of 3 October 1950. During this meeting Zhou Enlai issued the warning that if the American forces crossed the 38th parallel in Korea, China would "intervene" in the conflict. Note 21 Another one is the minutes of Zhou Enlai's talks with Pakistani president Ayub Khan on April 2, 1965, in which Zhou asked the Pakistani leader to convey a three-sentence message to the United States: (1) China will not provoke a war against the United States; (2) China means what it says; and (3) China is prepared. Note 22 This, indeed, is one of the most important documents concerning Beijing's attitudes toward the escalating Vietnam War following the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

Zhou Enlai nianpu, 1898-1949 and Zhou Enlai nianpu, 1949-1976 (A Chronicle of Zhou Enlai). Note 23 This chronicle is divided into two parts. The first part covers the period up to 1949, and the second covers the post-1949 period, offering a day-to-day account of Zhou Enlai's activities from his early years to his death in 1976. In addition to the many occasions on which important documents are summarized or partially quoted, this collection also includes the complete text of several important documents relating to Zhou Enlai. The second part of this chronicle is particularly valuable in the sense that it provides scholars with one of the few sources about CCP decision-making and other activities for the PRC period.

Zhou Enlai junshi wenxuan (Selected Military Papers of Zhou Enlai, 4 volumes). Note 24 This four-volume collection, published early in 1998 on the eve of the 100th anniversary of Zhou Enlai's birthday (March 8, 1898), focuses on documents concerning Zhou's handling of the CCP's and the PRC's military affairs. The first three volumes cover the pre-1949 period, and the fourth the post-1949 period. As with other "selected documents" of a similar nature, this collection includes many documents that are made available to researchers only for the first time. Particularly noteworthy is that this collection, although thin in covering the post-1949 period, is relatively rich in providing documents on Beijing's management of the Korean War in 1951-1952. This suggests that the opening of Russian Korean War-related archives may have produced a huge impact on Beijing's archival authorities (this issue will be discussed more fully in the later part of this essay).

Liu Shaoqi nianpu(A Chronicle of Liu Shaoqi). Note 25 Liu Shaoqi was the PRC's second most important leader from 1949 to 1966, when he was purged during the Cultural Revolution. This chronicle offers a detailed account of Liu's activities throughout his political career, providing in some cases the complete text of previously inaccessible documents. One example is Liu's direction of China's policy toward the First Indochina War early in the 1950s, as Liu obviously was in charge of Beijing's Vietnam affairs during this period. Particularly valuable are several of Liu's telegrams to Chinese military and political advisers in Vietnam, which revealed the depth of Beijing's involvement in the First Indochina War.

Deng Xiaoping wenxuan (Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, 3 vols.). Note 26 As China's most important leader after Mao's death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping played a central role in China's "reform and opening to the outside world" period. This collection offers researchers, as well as the general public, a window through which to study Deng Xiaoping's thoughts. The most important volume is the third volume, which covers the period from 1982 to 1992, when Deng was indisputably China's paramount leader (although he never assumed that title). Among the documents published in the volume is the talk Deng gave after the 1989 Tiananmen tragedy, in which Deng explained his reasoning for opening fire on the demonstrators in the square and on Beijing's streets.

In addition to the above listed collections, other "selected documentation" that have been published since the 1980s include the works by Chen Yun, Hu Qiaomu, Nie Rongzhen, Peng Dehuai, Wang Jiaxiang, Zhang Wentian, and Zhu De, Note 27 and selected documents on the CCP's united front, military, propaganda, and other affairs. Note 28

Compared with the ones published earlier, the "selected documents" published in the 1980s and 1990s have several distinctive features. First, in contrast with the earlier practice of extensively omitting or even revising the original documents for the sake of publication, the compilation and editing of most volumes published in the past decade are more faithful to the original text of the documents. For example, Zhonggong zhongyang wenjian xuanji and Jianguo yilai Mao Zedong wengao clearly indicate at the end of most documents that they are printed according to the original texts of the documents. In a few cases, photocopies of original documents are provided. This practice significantly increases the reliability and historical value of these publications.

Second, in the pre-1980 period, the editing and publication of "selected works" were generally controlled and conducted by party cadres who always put the party's interests over everything else and who possessed, in the best situation, only inadequate knowledge of China's modern history. In the past decade, increasing numbers of professional historians, many of whom have B.A., M.A., or even Ph.D. degrees in modern history, the history of the Chinese revolution, and modern Chinese politics, joined the editorial teams compiling and editing the "selected documents." Note 29 Although these scholars still must follow the general directions of the Party in conducting their work, their professional training makes them less willing than their predecessors to alter the documents. As a result, the documents selected are of better "quality" and the annotations are more useful to researchers. Indeed, the footnotes of several important collections, such as Jianguo yilai Mao Zedong wengao, Zhou Enlai waijiao wenxuan, and Mao Zedong waijiao wenxuan, contain much important documentary information.

Third, some of the collections, especially those for "internal circulation only," have broken many "forbidden zones" in the writing of CCP history. For example, scholars who are interested in CCP management of the Xian Incident will find that information offered by the documents in Zhonggong zhongyang wenjian xuanji, Mao Zedong nianpu, Zhou Enlai nianpu, and Mao Zedong wenji differs from the Party's propaganda in the past. This indicates that the CCP leadership's attitude toward Jiang Jieshi was strongly influenced, or even defined, by the Comintern. Also, the documents offered by Jianguo yilai Mao Zedong wengao reveal that one of the calculations behind Mao Zedong's decision to shell the Nationalist-controlled Jinmen islands in August 1958 was to assist the people in the Middle East, especially in Lebanon, in their struggles against the U.S. imperialists. Note 30 This description differs from the one presented in the official Party history.

New information is a source of power which may generate changes broader and more profound than the apparent reach of the information itself. In a deeper sense, the availability of new documentation also allows scholars to consider (or reconsider) many issues on the methodological level, pushing them to ask new questions and formulate new answers. All of this, indeed, has resulted in many new developments that have the potential to revolutionize the agenda for the study of China's Cold War experience in particular and the study of the Cold War in general. Here I will highlight several such developments.

As is well known, the study of international history and international relations has long been dominated by realist approaches. Scholars of international relations did pay attention to the role played by ideology, but often regarded this role as more of justifying already existing policy decisions than of shaping them at deeper levels. The new Chinese documents available to us now, many of which concern the internal discussions between Party leaders and thus reflect their deliberations and calculations during the process of policy making, put forward serious challenges to such approaches. Indeed, what we can see from these documents is that Mao and his comrades not only often used ideological terms to defend their policy decisions, but also widely referred to their beliefs in Communist ideology as the basic reason to make certain policy choices.

There are many examples I may cite from the new Chinese documentation to support this argument. Let me just give two. When the Chinese Communist leadership made the decision to enter the Korean War in October 1950, the newly-established PRC was only one year old. While making the decision, Mao and his comrades did repeatedly point out that the Chinese-Korean border would face serious and direct threats from the U.S./UN forces rapidly marching toward the Yalu River unless China intervened. But what Mao emphasized most was the impact such a decision might produce on maintaining and enhancing the momentum of the Chinese Communist revolution as well as on the fate of the "Eastern revolution" (in which the Chinese revolution should occupy a central position). In actuality, Mao defined the PRC's "national security interests" in highly ideological terms, making it clear that China had to enter the Korean War both for revolutionary commitments and security concerns (and these two in Mao's conceptual world were closely interrelated). Note 31

An equally revealing case can be found in Beijing's attitudes toward the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s. When the Americans escalated their war efforts in Vietnam, especially after the Gulf of Tonkin incident late in 1964, the PRC's security interests were under apparent and increasing threats. The Beijing leadership's security concerns, though, were not just defined by to what extent America's war actions would menace China's physical safety. What dominated Mao's mind was the subtle and complicated relationship between his grand enterprise of "continuous revolution" (which had reached a crucial juncture at that time) and China's Vietnam policy. At one level of his thinking, Mao perceived China's responses to the Vietnam crisis as a realm in which he might be able to pursue the unprecedented mass mobilization necessary to fit China into the orbit of the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution." Thus both security and ideological terms were used to legitimize Beijing's policies and strategies toward the Vietnam War, and these two kinds of terms cannot be properly understood without putting one into the context of the other. The role played by ideology here, again, was more substantial than simply providing justifications for existing policy decisions. Note 32

If we are to acknowledge that ideology indeed has played a more basic role in international relations than has been perceived by realpolitik-oriented scholars, we also face the challenge of re-defining "ideology." Among other things, this means that we should reconsider the relationship between "power" and "ideology" and refine the interconnections between ideology and culture. Some of our colleagues have already made efforts in this direction, Note 33 and we need to carry on the mission further.

The newly available Chinese documentation also provides new clues that may lead to a more sophisticated comprehension of the relationship between a nation's domestic politics and its external policies, a question that has been so widely considered and debated by scholars of international relations. Simply put, while China's changing domestic politics certainly played a crucial role in shaping the orientation of its external policies, it would be oversimplified to claim that the latter was the extension (or reflection) of the former. To relate this issue to the need of reconsidering the interplay between "power" and ideology and between ideology and culture, we may find that the key here is probably to reexamine the traditional understanding of the boundaries of and interconnections between "domestic" and "external."

If there is something that one must learn from reading many of the newly available Chinese documents concerning Mao's attitudes toward China's external affairs, it should be that Mao never drew a clear boundary between "domestic" and "external" issues. Indeed, within the framework of Mao's "continuous revolution," which was aimed to bring about a total transformation simultaneously of China's state, society and international outlook, "domestic" and "external" issues were interrelated in the sense that they were both integral components of Mao's grand enterprise of "continuous revolution." A term Mao frequently used in describing the space in which the "continuous revolution" should be waged was "tian xia" (all under the heaven), a concept that can only be properly understood when one digs into its historical and cultural roots. Chinese during traditional times were deeply convinced that Chinese civilization and the Chinese way of life stood superior in the known universe. With only a vague imagination of the "world," they would feel more comfortable using the concept "tian xia," which implied that the " Central Kingdom" Note 34 was the only civilized land in the known universe. China, in other words, was civilization in toto.

Thus Mao's particular use of language suggests that Chinese Communist foreign policy, no matter how revolutionary its appearance, had a hidden yet profound origin in the Chinese tradition that the Communist revolution had promised to destroy. The vagueness involved in the boundary between "domestic" and "external," as indicated by Mao's use of "tian xia," should push scholars to reconsider the definition of these two space-related concepts (i.e. "domestic" and "external") in broader theoretical terms. I believe that this may open the path toward achieving fresh scholarly comprehension of some fundamental issues (such as understanding particular policy behavior in a historical-cultural perspective).

So far as the practical Chinese decision-making process is concerned, the newly available Chinese documentation has allowed us not only to know more about its procedures but also to understand better the basic features of its structure. The most important of such features was Mao's uniquely dominant position in the CCP's decision-making apparatus.

As can be seen clearly from the new Chinese documentation, Mao was the single most important policymaker in the CCP(PRC)'s policy-making structure. He dictated policy principles and often participated in defining policy details, especially when he believed that the details would decisively determine to what extent the principles would be realized. This sometimes made the CCP's policy-making appear non-conventional: the making and implementation of policy decisions were tightly controlled and supervised by Mao; and the whole bureaucratic structure seemed overwhelmed by Mao's authority. As a result, the usual checks and balances produced by different levels and sections of the bureaucratic structure gave way to Mao's paramount and monolithic leadership role. This, I believe, presents another challenge that requires responses based on examinations of basic scholarly understandings in international relations studies.

Having pointed out all of the above, I must emphasize that I do not want to exaggerate the utility and significance of China's "selected documents." After all, we do know that the documents released in the 1980s and 1990s are only a small portion of the entire body of original sources, and the criteria of their selection remain highly dubious. In reality, we also know that many documents, which in the eyes of the editors have the potential of harming the "generally correct" image of the CCP and its leaders, have been intentionally excluded from these selections.

An example of this practice is revealed in a telegram Mao Zedong sent to Peng Dehuai on January 28, 1951. Let me first give some background information about this document. After Chinese troops entered the Korean War in October 1950, they waged three offensive campaigns from late October 1950 to early January 1951, driving the American/UN troops from areas close to the Chinese-Korean border to areas south of the 38th parallel. However, the Chinese forces exhausted their offensive potential because of heavy casualties, lack of air support, and the overextension of supply lines. Therefore, when the American troops started a counteroffensive on January 25, 1951, Peng Dehuai, the Chinese commander, proposed a temporary retreat in a telegram to Mao on January 27. Mao, however, overestimated China's strength. In a telegram to Peng the next day, he ordered Peng to use a Chinese/North Korean offensive to cope with the American offensive. He even argued that the Chinese troops possessed the capacity to advance to the 36th parallel. Note 35 Mao's instructions contributed to the military defeat of the Chinese troops on the Korean battlefield in spring 1951. This telegram is certainly important because it revealed Mao's strategic thinking at a crucial point of the Korean War, and reflected the goals he hoped to achieve in Korea--driving the Americans out of the Korean peninsula, thus promoting China's reputation and influence in East Asia while at the same time enhancing the Chinese revolution at home. However, this telegram also makes it very clear that sometimes Mao exercised poor judgment. Although a few Chinese authors with access to classified documents have cited the telegram in its entirety, this important telegram is excluded from Jianguo yilai Mao Zedong wengao and Mao Zedong junshi wenji , Note 36 This, of course, is only one of many, many examples.

The end of the Cold War made it possible for scholars to get access to documents from the archives of the former Soviet Union. Information in some of the recently available Russian documents contradicts what has been revealed by Chinese documents. These discrepancies expose the limit to which truth is told by "selected documents" in China.

The most conspicuous case in this regard probably is Mao Zedong's October 2, 1950 telegram to Stalin. All the Chinese documents about the Korean War published in the first volume of Jianguo yilai Mao Zedong wengao indicate that the Beijing leadership had made the initial decision to enter the Korean War early in October 1950. In a telegram dated October 2, Mao formally informed Stalin that the CCP leadership had decided to "send a portion of our troops, under the name of [the Chinese] People's Volunteers, to Korea, assisting the Korean comrades to fight the troops of the United States and its running dog Syngman Rhee." Mao also summarized the Beijing leadership's justifications for making such a decision. Note 37

However, a sharply different version of Mao's message appears in the Russian documentation on the Korean War. According to it, Mao Zedong informed the Soviets on October 2, 1950 that because dispatching Chinese troops to Korea "may entail extremely serious consequences," including "provoking an open conflict between the United States and China," many leaders in Beijing believed that China should "show caution" in entering the Korean War. Mao therefore advised Stalin that the Beijing leadership had not made the decision to enter the Korean War. Note 38

Further investigation into this case confirms that the original of Mao's telegram, as published in Jianguo yilai Mao Zedong wengao, is at Beijing's Central Archives. It is in Mao's own handwriting and, therefore, there is no doubt that this document is genuine and that its contents reflect Mao's thinking. Note 39 But the fact that this telegram is not found in Russian archives, and that another version of Mao's message to Stalin does exist, points to the possibility that although Mao drafted the telegram, he may not have dispatched it. In fact, the original of this telegram is different in format from many of Mao's other telegram: while others usually (though not always) carry the signature of Mao's office staff to indicate the time when the telegram was dispatched, this telegram does not. Note 40 If this telegram was indeed drafted but not dispatched and if Mao instead sent another message to Stalin, we must conclude that the process through which the CCP leadership reached the decision to send troops to Korea was highly tortuous, and that the personal communication between Mao and Stalin was not easy. In any case, the knowledge of the existence of a Russian version of Mao's message to Stalin on October 2, 1950, which was thoroughly different from the Chinese version, warns us that we must view the Chinese documentation obtained from selected documentary collections with extremely critical eyes.

A real solution to these problems is to provide scholars with full and free access to Chinese archives. "Selected documents" are useful, but only in a highly limited sense. This is particularly true because even in the age of "reform and opening to the outside world," the writing of Party history in China remains a business primarily designed to enhance the legitimacy of the Party's reign in China. This means that materials released through "selected works" are often driven by intentions other than making the truth known, and, as a result, can be misleading.

Adopting a realistic attitude toward the prospect of China's archival opening, we must realize that the current situation will not improve dramatically in the near future. Among other reasons, this is because the Chinese Communist state, facing the comprehensive effect of the reform and opening process, is entangled in a profound legitimacy crisis.

From a historical perspective, the CCP has justified its one-party reign by emphasizing two of the Chinese Communist revolution's fundamental missions: that the revolution would create in China a new, communist society characterized by universal justice and equality; and that it would change China's weak country status and revive its central position on the world scene. Despite all the difficulties he encountered, Mao never gave up his embrace of the first mission. His "continuous revolution," in retrospect, while failing to end political privileges in Chinese society, succeeded in creating a relatively egalitarian situation (though at a low standard of living) in China's economic life. Deng Xiaoping's reform and opening policies, in challenging the low standard of living left by Mao, has created profound economic inequality within Chinese society, thus undermining Maoist egalitarianism both as an ideal and a social reality. The Chinese Communist Party today, as MIT political scientist Thomas J. Christensen points out, "has all but obliterated the second of the two adjectives in its name." Note 41 As a result, the legitimacy of the Chinese communist regime is called into serious question.

Under these circumstances, the post-Mao Chinese government began to attach more importance to the Chinese revolution's second mission in an effort to legitimize its existence. Consequently, a central myth of the communist narrative of modern Chinese history--if there had not been the CCP's successful revolution, China would have remained a weak, corrupt, and divided country with no status on the world scene--has been made the single, most important justification for the existence of the CCP's one-party reign. As a central part of this effort, the Party realizes that it must control history writing as much as possible, so that it would not produce any serious challenge to the notion that "had there not been the Communist Party, there would have never been a new, powerful China." Note 42 The prospect of full and free documentary opening in China is still remote.

This, however, does not mean that nothing can be done to promote further documentary opening in China. Several strategies may be suggested here. First, scholars should support and push China's "reform and opening" process in a general sense with a belief that such a process will bring about more openness within Chinese society in general and within the Chinese scholarly circle in particular, eventually creating the conditions for more full and free openings of historical records. Second, it is important to promote international archival exchanges with Chinese scholars, especially by introducing new, post-Cold War documents (those related to China in particular) from other former Communist bloc countries. Experiences of the past several years have proven that the Chinese side has been sensitive toward the substance and meaning of these documents, and that the translation of such documents into Chinese has caused Beijing to open more documents pertaining to related matters. Third, scholars should continue to use all newly available Chinese documents regardless of their means of dissemination. Armed with a full understanding of the limits and flaws of "selected documents," scholars can and should continue to use them in critical ways. In the meantime, scholars should explore other opportunities, such as conducting oral interviews and doing research at local and regional archives. Note 43

What has occurred in China's Cold War documentary opening is not a revolution--not yet. Despite all the progress that has been made since the early 1980s, it remains difficult for scholars, especially those working on China's Cold War experience, to be free from the Party's interference. Even the very existence of the "selected documents" phenomenon is self explanatory, demonstrating that further revolutionary changes are needed before scholars can enjoy free inquiry as a basic condition for academic research in China. Indeed, until scholars gain full and unrestricted access to Beijing's archives, their ability to achieve deeper and more comprehensive understanding of China's Cold War experience will be seriously compromised. With hope, though, we must anticipate that, as has happened in many other parts of the former Communist world, such revolutionary changes are inevitable.



  1. CHEN Jian is associate Professor of History at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He has previously taught at East China Normal University in Shanghai and the State University of New York at Geneseo. Among his publications are China's Road to the Korean War: The Making of the Sino-American Confrontation (1994), Chinese Communist Foreign Policy and the Cold War in Asia: New Documentary Evidence, 1944-50 (coeditor, 1996), and The China Challenge in the 21st Century: Implications of U.S. Foreign Policy (1998). He has several book projects underway, most notably Revolution and Power: Mao's China Encounters the World, 1949-1976." [Back]
  2. As of 1997, Jianguo yilai Mao Zedong wengao had published 13 volumes, covering the period from 1949 to 1976 (the year Mao passed away). [Back]
  3. For a detailed discussion of these sources, see Chen Jian, China's Road to the Korean War: The Making of the Sino-American Confrontation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), pp. 5-6, 226-228; see also Chen Jian, "China and the Korean War: A Critical Historiographical Review," Korea & World Affairs, vol. 19, no. 2 (Summer 1995), pp.314-336. [Back]
  4. Jianguo yilai Mao Zedong wengao (Mao Zedong's Manuscripts since the Founding of the People's Republic of China), 13 vols. through 1997 (Beijing: The Central Press of Historical Documents, 1987- ). [Back]
  5. For English translations of the documents covering the July-December 1950 period, see "Mao's Dispatch of Chinese Troops to Korea: Forty-six Telegrams, July-October 1950," and "Mao's Telegrams during the Korean War, October-December 1950," trans. by Li Xiaobing et al., Chinese Historians, vol.5, nos. 1 and 2, (Spring and Fall 1992). [Back]
  6. For English translations of some of the documents concerning the Sino-Soviet split, see "The Emerging Disputes between Beijing and Moscow: Ten Newly Available Chinese Documents, 1956-1958," intro. and trans. by Zhang Shu Guang and Chen Jian, Cold War International History Project Bulletin (hereafter cited as CWIHPB), no.6-7, pp.148-156. [Back]
  7. For English translations of the documents concerning the 1958 Taiwan crisis, see "Mao Zedong's Handling of the Taiwan Straits Crisis of 1958, Chinese Recollections and Documents," trans. by Li Xiaobing et al., CWIHPB, no.6-7, pp.208-218. [Back]
  8. For English translations of these documents, see Stuart Schram ed., Chairman Mao Talks to the People, Talks and Letters. 1956-1971 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974). [Back]
  9. For English translations of these documents, see Zhang Shu Guang and Chen Jian, eds., Chinese Communist Foreign Policy and the Cold War in Asia: Documentary Evidence, 1944-1950 (Chicago: Imprint Publications, 1996), Part II. [Back]
  10. Zhonggong zhongyang wenjian xuanji (Selected Documents of the CCP Central Committee), internal edition, 14 vols. (Beijing: CCP Central Academy Press, 1983-1987); open edition, 18 vols. (Beijing: CCP Central Academy Press, 1989-1993). [Back]
  11. Mao Zedong junshi wenxuan (Selected Military Papers of Mao Zedong) (Beijing: Soldier's Press, 1981). [Back]
  12.   Mao Zedong junshi wenji (A Collection of Mao Zedong's Military Papers), 6 vols. (Beijing: Military Science Press, 1993). [Back]
  13. Mao Zedong waijiao wenxuan (Selected Diplomatic Papers of Mao Zedong) (Beijing:World Knowledge Press, 1994). [Back]
  14. Ibid., pp. 322-333; for English translation of the text of the conservation, see CWIHPB, no.6-7, pp. 155-159. [Back]
  15. For example, Mao Zedong's July 22, 1958 meeting with the Soviet Yudin was followed by an urgent secret visit by the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to Beijing from July 31 to August 3, 1958. Mao Zedong waijiao wenxuan does not include anything related to this important event. [Back]
  16. Mao Zedong wenji (A Collection of Mao Zedong's Papers), 5 vols. through 1997 (Beijing: People's Press, 1993- ). [Back]
  17. 17. See ibid., vol.5, pp.335-336. [Back]
  18. Mao Zedong nianpu (A Chronicle of Mao Zedong), 3 vols. (Beijing: The Central Press of Historical Documents and People's Press, 1993). [Back]
  19. Ibid., vol. 3, pp. 499-500. [Back]
  20. Zhou Enlai waijiao wenxuan (Selected Diplomatic Papers of Zhou Enlai), (Beijing: The Central Press of Historical Documents, 1990). [Back]
  21. 21.See ibid., pp. 25-27. [Back]
  22. For English translation of this document, see Odd Arne Westad and Chen Jian et al eds., "77 Conversations between Chinese and Foreign Leaders on the Wars in Indochina, 1964-1977," Cold War International History Project Working Paper No. 22 (May 1998), pp.79-85. [Back]
  23. Jin Chongji et al. comp., Zhou Enlai nianpu, 1898-1949 (A Chronicle of Zhou Enlai), Beijing: The Central Press of Historical Documents, 1989); Li Qi, Li Ping et al. comp., Zhou Enlai nianpu, 1949-1976 (A Chronicle of Zhou Enlai), 3 vols. (Beijing: The Central Press of Historical Documents, 1997). [Back]
  24. Zhou Enlai junshi wenxuan (Selected Military Papers of Zhou Enlai) (Beijing: People's Press, 1998). [Back]
  25. Liu Chongwen et al comp., Liu Shaoqi nianpu (A Chronicle of Liu Shaoqi) 2 vols. (Beijing: The Central Press of Historical Documents, 1996). [Back]
  26. Deng Xiaoping wenxuan (Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping), 3 vols. (Beijing: People's Press, 1993). [Back]
  27. Chen Yun wenxuan (Selected Works of Chen Yun), 2 vols. (Beijing: People's Press, 1984); Hu Qiaomu wenji (A Collection of Hu Qiaomu's Works), 3 vols. (Beijing: People's Press, 1993-94); Liu Shaoqi xuanji (Selected Works of Liu Shaoqi), 2 vols. (Beijing: People's Press, 1982); Nie Rongzhen junshi wenxuan (Selected Military Papers of Nie Rongzhen) (Beijing: People's Liberation Army Press, 1992); Peng Dehuai junshi wenxuan (Selected Military Papers of Peng Dehuai) (Beijing: The Central Press of Historical Documents, 1989). Wang Jiaxiang xuanji (Selected Works of Wang Jiaxiang) (Beijing: People's Press, 1984); Zhang Wentian xuanji (A Collection of Zhang Wentian), 3 vols. (Beijing: People's Press, 1993-94); Zhu De xuanji (Selected Works of Zhu De), Beijing: People's Press, 1984). [Back]
  28. For example, Zhonggong kangri zhangzheng shiqi tongyi zhanxian wenjian xuanbian (Selected United Front Documents of the CCP Central Committee during the War of Resistance against Japan), 3 vols. (Beijing Archives Press, 1985); Zhonggong zhongyang jiefang zhanzheng shiqi tongyi zhanxian wenjian xuanbian (Selected United Front Documents of the CCP Central Committee during the War of Liberation) (Beijing: Archives Press, 1988); Dang de xuanchuan gongzuo wenjian xuanbian (Selected Propaganda Affairs Documents of the Party), 4 vols. (Beijing: CCP Central Academy Press, 1994). [Back]
  29. This is particularly true so far as the situation at several Party documentary institutions in Beijing is concerned. [Back]
  30. Jianguo yilai Mao Zedong wengao, vol.7, pp. 391-392. [Back]
  31. For more detailed and thorough discussions on the dynamics underlying Beijing's Korean War decision, see Chen Jian, China's Road to the Korean War, especially Chapters 5-7. [Back]
  32. For more extensive discussions on this issue, see Chen Jian, "China's Involvement in the Vietnam War, 1964-1969," The China Quarterly, no. 143 (June 1995), pp.356-387. [Back]
  33. An example in this regard can be found in Michael M. Sheng's excellent recent study Battling Western Imperialism: Mao, Stalin and the United States (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997). In this study, Sheng powerfully, though not without provoking disagreements, argues for the need of treating ideology as a central driving force underlying the CCP's external policies. [Back]
  34. I believe that "Central Kingdom" is a more accurate translation for "Zhong Guo" (China) than the frequently used "Middle Kingdom." While the term "Middle Kingdom" does not have the meaning that China is superior to other people and nations around it--it is simply by chance that China is located in the middle in a geographical sense--the term "Central Kingdom" implies that China is superior to any other people and nation "under the heaven" and thus occupies a "central" position in the universe. [Back]
  35. For a more detailed description of the contents of Mao's telegram, see Chen Jian, "China's Changing Aims during the Korean War, 1950-1951," The Journal of American-East Asian Relations, vol.1, no.1 (Spring 1992), pp. 31-33. [Back]
  36. My interviews with researchers at Beijing's Academy of Military Science, who were responsible for editing Mao Zedong junshi wenji in summer 1991 confirmed that this telegram would not be included because of its "improper" content. [Back]
  37. Telegram, Mao Zedong to Stalin, October 2, 1950, Jianguo yilai Mao Zedong wengao, vol. 1, pp. 549-552. [Back]
  38. Mao Zedong did not send this message directly to Stalin. It was included in a telegram by N. V. Roschin, Soviet ambassador to China, to Stalin on October 2, 1950. See Cold War International History Bulletin, nos. 6-7 (Winter 1996/96), pp.114-116. [Back]
  39. During a research trip to Beijing in November 1998, I acquired a copy of the Chinese version of Mao's telegram, which, indeed, was drafted by Mao himself. [Back]
  40. For a more detailed discussion about this issue, see Shen Zhihua (trans. by Chen Jian), "The Discrepancy between the Russian and Chinese Versions of Mao's 2 October 1950 Message to Stalin on Chinese Entry into the Korean War: A Chinese Scholar's Reply," CWIHPB, nos. 8-9 (Winter 1996/97), pp.237-242. [Back]
  41. Thomas J. Christensen, "Chinese Realpolitik," Foreign Affairs, September/October 1996, p. 46. [Back]
  42. This is the theme of an officially endorsed popular song in the PRC. [Back]
  43. Since 1993, Professor Zhang Shu Guang of University of Maryland has made extraordinary efforts in carrying out a project aimed at working in China's local and regional archives. The project has made substantial progress, showing great potential for promoting openness in Chinese archives. [Back]